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Kirk Wynd and The Old Parish Church, Kirkcaldy
Kirk Wynd and The Old Parish Church, Kirkcaldy

Adam Smith lived from 5 June 1723 to 17 July 1790. He was a hugely influential political economist and moral philosopher whose book An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations founded the modern academic discipline of economics. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.

Statue of Adam Smith in Edinburgh
Statue of Adam Smith in Edinburgh

Adam Smith was the son of the Controller of the Customs at Kirkcaldy in Fife, though his father had died some months before Adam was born. As a 4 year old he was kidnapped by Gypsies, before being quickly rescued by his uncle and returned to his mother.

In 1737, at the aged of 14, Adam went to the University of Glasgow, where he studied moral philosophy under Francis Hutcheson. Here he founded his strong beliefs in liberty, reason and free speech. In 1740 he received a Snell Scholarship, under which Glasgow University students could study at Balliol College, Oxford. Some have argued that this was a sign he was destined for the clergy (given the stated aims of the scholarship), but he returned from Oxford having abandoned his religious beliefs.

From 1748 Smith was commissioned by Lord Kames to give a series of public lectures at the University of Edinburgh. These covered a variety of subjects, but included themes such as "the progress of opulence" and "the obvious and simple system of natural liberty" which were to form the foundations of his later work. In about 1750 Smith met David Hume, whose ideas meshed closely with his own.

Adam Smith returned to Glasgow University in 1751, taking up the Chair of Logic. The following year he became Chair of Moral Philosophy. Areas covered in his courses included ethics, rhetoric, jurisprudence, political economy, and "police and revenue". In 1759 Smith published The Theory of Moral Sentiments drawing on his Glasgow lectures. The book established Smith's reputation as a leading thinker of his day.

In 1763 Smith was offered a well paid position as tutor to the young Duke of Buccleuch. Between 1764 and 1766 Adam and his pupil travelled widely across Europe, coming into contact with many renowned academics of the day, including Voltaire, Rousseau, Franklin, Turgot, Jean D'Alembert, André Morellet, Helvétius and Francois Quesnay.

Smith returned to Kirkcaldy in 1766, and spent most of the next decade writing An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, which was published in 1776. The book was written for the average educated individual of the day rather than for specialists, making it widely accessible. This in turn helped ensure its considerable success.

The Wealth of Nations became one of the most influential books ever written. It is a well written account of the state of the political economy at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution; makes a comprehensive case for free market policies; and is generally accepted to be the first modern work in the field of economics. Its five books were published as two volumes. At a stroke, all earlier work in the field was defunct, and academics turned their attention to the development of Smith's ideas into what became known as Classical Economics. This in turn (by very different routes) formed the basis of Modern Economics and Marxist Economics. The ideas behind the book are best summed up in a single quote:

"It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages."

In 1778 Adam Smith became Commissioner of Customs in Scotland and lived with his mother in Edinburgh. He died on 17 July 1790, and was buried in the kirkyard of Canongate Kirk in Edinburgh's Royal Mile. At the time of his death he is thought to have been working on two books, one on the theory and history of law, and one on the sciences and arts. However he left instructions that his literary executors, scientist Joseph Black and geologist James Hutton, were to destroy any manuscripts or notes not immediately fit for publication. His Essays on Philosophical Subjects was posthumously published in 1795, but there is a widespread belief that a great deal of valuable work that should have been kept, was destroyed under the terms of his will.

Adam Smith's memory lives on in many ways. The Adam Smith Institute, based in London since 1977, is "Britain’s leading innovator of free-market economic and social policies." At a more everyday level, Smith's picture also appears on the £50 note that has been issued since 2003 by Scotland's Clydesdale Bank. And from Spring 2007 he appears on the Bank of England £20 note, the first Scotsman ever to have his picture on a Bank of England note.

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